It is the sovereign’s duty to protect the forests where elephants thrive, says the Manasollasa, a 12th century Sanskrit text attributed to the Western Chalukya king Someshvara III — because only the richest and widest of forests can support the large, long-ranging Elephas maximus.
Eight centuries on, the elephant still makes the biggest demands on the resources of an increasingly crowded and denuded land. And pays a heavy price as one of the worst victims of India’s development.
Most often, elephants make news when they die on rail tracks — a crushed family, rather than a single animal, makes bigger headlines; a calf or pregnant cow multiplies the outrage. Like the four elephants, including a calf, mowed down in Odisha on Monday; or the five killed in Assam this February; or the six, one of them pregnant, in Assam again, in December.
Trains have been killing elephants for a while. The Environment Ministry’s Elephant Task Force report estimated more than 100 elephants had died on the tracks during 2001-10. Many, like the recent deaths, are mass casualties — six elephants were killed in Ganjam, Odisha, in December 2012, and seven in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, in September 2010.
The frequency and number of train kills have, in fact, been rising. The tracks between Siliguri and Alipurduar in North Bengal recorded 27 deaths between 1974 and 2002; this figure more than doubled to 65 between 2004 and 2015. Across India, average annual casualties jumped from nine during 2000-09 to 17 over the next seven years.
Home under siege
Trains are actually a minor killer. Poisoning, poaching, and electrocution together kill more than four times as many elephants. During 2009-16, 535 elephants died this way; during the same period, 120 were killed on the tracks.
India’s 668 Protected (forest) Areas cover 1,61,222 sq km, less than 5% of the country’s area. And yet, many see attempts to make these stretches no-go zones as an impediment to growth.
India’s 32 elephant reserves (ERs) are spread over 65,000 sq km, but less than 30% of this area is legally protected forests. In its 2010 report, the Centre’s Elephant Task Force recommended that the entire ER area be declared ecologically sensitive under the Environment Protection Act — which would make another 46,000 sq km out of bounds for miners and developers. The Task Force also recommended setting up of 10 elephant landscapes around the 32 ERs, covering a total 1,10,000 sq km. That would require judicious land use in another 45,000 sq km.
But given the reluctance to treat the 1,61,222 sq km of Protected Areas as sacrosanct, the setting aside of 91,000 sq km of ERs and elephant landscapes as no-go or slow-go areas, was always going to be difficult.
The Chhattisgarh Assembly, for instance, resolved in 2005 to create elephant reserves in Lemru (450 sq km) in Korba, and Badalkhol-Tamarpingla (1,048 sq km) in Jashpur and Sarguja — a plan that was cleared by the Centre in 2007. The following year, however, the Chhattisgarh chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry wrote to the Divisional Forest Officer, Korba, asking that since a few coal blocks fell in the area, the proposed “reserve should be shifted to some other location”. The state scrapped its plan for Lemru.
Paths not safe either
National Highways run through 40 of India’s 88 identified elephant corridors, 21 have rail tracks, 18 have both. It makes little economic sense to put curbs on speed or night traffic along the ever-expanding linear network.
In North Bengal, the night speed limit once applied to a total 17.4 km — a series of short stretches of 1-3 km each — in an 80-km segment between Siliguri and Alipurduar. But since 1-3 km doesn’t cover even the braking distance, trains ran slowly over the entire segment. So it made no difference when the go-slow stretch was extended to 79.60 km in 2013.
Speed restrictions are feasible only in short, singular stretches, such as the 11km near Berhampore in Odisha, the 8-km segment through Jharkhand’s Palamu, or the 4-km in the Palghat Gap in the Western Ghats that connects Kerala’s Palakkad and Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore. It is not an option on steep gradients, such as Assam’s Karbi Anglong, where to climb, trains must accelerate.
Speed restrictions, where practical, work best when guided by real-time inputs on elephant movements. A protocol put in place in Rajaji National Park helped avert elephant casualties for many years. Followed rigorously, it can be replicated in short stretches elsewhere.
But where a track, or road, cuts across several wildlife corridors over a longer stretch, the solution is realignment. Indeed, it makes little sense to restrict speed on the Siliguri-Alipurduar stretch, when a safer alignment through Falakata is available. And where realignment is not possible — like the track that must cut through Rajaji National Park to connect Dehradun to the rest of India — tracks have to be elevated with underpasses for elephants.
Since all forest routes across the country can’t be realigned or elevated overnight, the Railways must prioritise, and balance efficiency and safety while planning projects or expanding existing ones under the new Rules of the Environment Ministry. Enough expertise and experience are available to find site-specific, science-based solutions for key corridors. The test lies in the will to implement those remedies irrespective of the cost. It will, of course, take a lot more — such as giving up on sizeable coal reserves — to secure the elephant’s fragmented and shrinking home.
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Blood on the rails
Four elephants — two males, aged 15 and 5, and two females, 25 and 1 — were killed in Jharsuguda district by the Howrah-Mumbai Mail between 3.30 am to 4.30 am Monday. In December 2012, five elephants were mowed down by the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express in Ganjam district.
Elephants migrate long distances along ‘corridors’ that are usually marked by similar vegetation. Reports on Odisha by the conservation organisation Wildlife Trust of India record that once-contiguous elephant habitats across Kuldiha and Hadgarh Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Simlipal National Park, are now fragmented by mines, rail lines and human settlements. Bamra forest division, from where these four elephants were coming, is particularly affected by mining.
After Monday’s accident, Jharsuguda Division forest officials have sought details of rail employees on board the Howrah-Mumbai Mail. Railway officials, however, say they cannot be held liable because no specific advisory was issued by the Forest Department apart from a generic cautionary note in November. The Railway Ministry told Parliament last year that steps had been taken to ensure safe passage for elephants across rail lines, including a speed limit of 30 km/hour, signages announcing corridors, sensitisation drives for drivers, underpasses and ramps for elephants, and fencing at particularly vulnerable locations. SER officials, however, point out that elephants do not stick to paths or schedules. They blame forest officials for failing to relay real-time threats, and say slowing down trains for hours at a stretch would disrupt rail traffic over a large part of the network.
No elephants died on the tracks in Uttarakhand between 2002 and 2012, said elephant conservationist Rupa Gandhi Chaudhary. Local people were involved to guard vulnerable tracks. “Elephants mostly travel for water. Periodic de-siltation of their watering holes will keep them in their areas. We also sensitised pantry workers in trains not to throw food waste on the tracks,” Chaudhary said. WTI is testing an automated solar-powered device, EleTrack, that can detect large animals near the tracks and issues a loud, flashing warning for train drivers. —SAMPAD PATNAIK, BHUBANESWAR